Once upon a time, the holiday shopping season had a very, very well-defined start date. The day after Thanksgiving has been known colloquially as Black Friday ever since the 1970s. But before it was known as Black Friday, it was already a nationally established custom in the U.S. to associate the end of Thanksgiving with the kick-off of the holiday shopping season.
And if you’re wondering who is to thank for that, it’s Macy’s.
In one of the earlier examples of experiential retail innovation, in 1924 Macy’s hosted the first of its annual Thanksgiving Day Parades. And though much has changed about the parade over the last 94 or so years, it has always ended the same way: Santa Claus is always the last float, and his arrival signals that the holiday shopping season has begun.
Other retailers adopted the Macy’s standard, so to speak, and it was such a hard-and-fast line that the date of Thanksgiving was officially changed to better accommodate it. The holiday used to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November, but in 1939 (just like in 2018), that would have made Thanksgiving the last day of the month. Retailers wanted to start the holiday shopping season before then, but the tradition of holding off on holiday advertising until after the holiday was so culturally ingrained that rather than breaking the taboo, retailers lobbied President Roosevelt to change the date of Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November instead of the last Thursday.
Which he did – and which was later reinforced by Congressional decree. Some people grumbled at the change, and briefly dubbed the new date “Franksgiving,” but that nickname didn’t stick much past the 1930s.
For nearly 85 years, that tradition held – though there were smatterings of holiday activity here and there, for most consumers, the semi-official start of the holiday shopping season was marked by clearing the Thanksgiving dishes and settling into a month of commerce excitement. Some Christmas decorations might go up before the cranberry sauce was served in mid-November, but the shopping events remained mostly limited to after the Thanksgiving holiday was through.
The Great Shift
But a funny thing happened as the 2010s started and consumer shopping habits became increasingly digital.
And increasingly Amazon-centric.
In 2011, Amazon started pushing back its Black Friday offers, first to a few days before Thanksgiving, then a week, then two. As of 2015, Amazon officially started its “Black Friday” holiday promotions on Nov. 1, complete with all the “trimmings” – timed offers (that encourage users to check in often to make sure they aren’t missing out), early access for Prime members and a series of special promotions within the marketplace focused on getting consumers moving early (and getting the supply chain buzzing in an orderly fashion, also early).
By 2016, the observation that “Black Friday is a month long” wasn’t much of an exaggeration – because, as they had done a few generations before with Macy’s, retailers rapidly followed suit, with the likes of Walmart, Best Buy, Target, Kohl’s, Bed Bath & Beyond and even Macy’s joining the Nov. 1 start date for holiday shopping deals.
And, as Dave Barrowman, Skava VP of innovation, told PYMNTS last year, starting the Black Friday pre-season at the beginning of November helps to smooth out demand and gives retailers an early read on the holidays, so they know how aggressively to approach the rest of the season.
“From a tech standpoint, the main goal is to meet demand and stay online,” Barrowman said.
Plus, there is always the thought that the early bird catches the worm – which, in this case, is consumer holiday spend. But, of course, that would only be true if the sales were successful in getting customers to shop early.
Small thing about that, though…
Customers Really Love Procrastinating
As the old expression goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Similarly, you can hand a shopper early savings, but you can’t make them shop early.
And, the data indicates, there are some shoppers that you cannot make shop early. In fact, there are a lot of them.
According to the research group Which?, 57 percent of shoppers do their Christmas shopping between the last week of November and Christmas Eve, as contrasted to the 26 percent of shoppers who have their shopping done by the end of autumn.
According to Google Insights, there are 34 percent more shopping searches done on Christmas Day than on Black Friday (planning what to buy with those gift cards or the proceeds from returns, maybe?). Google also reports that the largest number of online orders happens every year on or about Dec. 21 – not Cyber Monday – as that is the typical cut-off date for guaranteed Christmas Eve delivery. Once that day has passed, searches spike and become incredibly locally focused.
Google Insights also noted that there is one day that has always been the biggest in-store shopping day of the year for the decade they’ve been keeping records on it, no matter what day of the week it falls on.
But, hey, stores are mostly open on the 24th, so in fairness, it’s not quite the last minute.
Why do customers persistently wait? The reasons seem to be both practical and psychological.
On the practical side, waiting until late in the season might be a better way to save than jumping at early deals. A survey from Deloitte found that late shoppers will spend less money when shopping for holiday gifts, while those who start shopping around Thanksgiving spend more. And even if those savings aren’t there, Consumer Psychologist Kit Yarrow wrote, the perception that they will be or at least might be could cause some consumers to procrastinate.
And, according to Google Insights, consumers are very likely to do some research ahead of time before making purchases – around 13 days, on average. Interestingly, Google also found that once consumers decide on a purchase, “almost half expect it either the same day or the next day. In fact, mobile searches related to ‘same-day shipping’ have grown 120 percent since 2015.”
So is it a waste to go after the early spend when consumers in so many cases seem content to procrastinate more than half the time? Possibly. According to InfoScout’s CEO Jared Schrieber, the data indicates that not all holiday spend is quite created equal.
“A lot of the big family household purchases happen early,” said Schrieber. “People get those out of the way early and save their buying for other people outside the household to later into the season. And those tend to be smaller items.”
Consumers may be shopping right up until the end, but in some cases, they buy their better stuff earlier, making it worth the attempt at catching them.
But they might not be quite ready to consider Christmas shopping before they’ve finished their Thanksgiving dinner. Some, it seems, will always want to take a turkey nap before formally getting started.